This is the sixth novel I’ve read of T.C. Boyle and, as per usual, he delivers a fast-paced lucidly written narrative. The opening chapter is sensational, too difficult an act to follow as it turns out. I don’t want to say anything about the plot and I recommend readers avoid the book’s blurb, if they can, which is full of spoilers. That blurb states that the novel ‘explores the roots of violence and anti-authoritarianism inherent in the American character’, and I believe this was Boyle’s overall intention, but like his main character, Adam, he drifts off the grid.
There are three main figures interacting: Sten, an old ex-Viet vet and former headmaster of the local Californian high school once attended by his twenty something son, Adam, a seriously psychologically damaged loner, and Adam’s older lover, Sara, an anti-establishment crank. Violent and mouthy men and women enamoured of the American outlaw legend, familiar Boyle territory, and I feel he’s worked this ground more productively. Not that with a writer of this calibre there aren’t great positives. The actual writing is visceral, sensual, always to the purpose, and threaded with off-beat humour even through its darkest passages. The close third person Boyle habitually employs―no fancy literary tricks here―is ideal for getting right under the skin of his characters. Boyle has wonderful empathy with even the wackiest individuals and he takes you right with him.
Even so, Adam is so extreme he can’t be really developed as a symbol for anything. America hasn’t made Adam, he has just latched onto aspects of America that feed his madness. Ditto Sara in a lesser way; she’s just another ratbag you don’t want to sit next to on the train. Sten is more complex and interesting, but Boyle obviously feels that he can build a more gripping story around Adam, and of course he can, but potential depth and resonance are invariably sacrificed. It’s a tabloid thriller, not really much more. The (literary) problem with cranks and maniacs is that, no matter how brilliantly realised, they can’t tell us much about anything except themselves.